My Outside Classrooms
By Yoginder Sikand
17 August, 2012
If you ask me what I remember of all that I studied at school and, then, in many years at college and university and which came in handy later in life, I don't think I'll have much to narrate. What an awful waste of those precious youthful years! Honestly, little of what I was forced to learn in the classroom proved of any use to me once I stepped out into the 'real world'. Which is why, when Raju, a middle-aged father, came to meet me yesterday for 'advice' as to what to do about his two sons, who go to an expensive medium school but who seem, as he put it, to 'learn nothing at all' there, I was tempted to tell him to pull them out of the school at once.
If education is a means for us to learn about the world so as to help us prepare to live in it, it was mainly outside the classroom--out in the 'real world'--that my education really took place. My parents made it a point to take us to a new place every year during the winter holidays, and the things I learned in the course of those early travels--about different places, monuments, people, cultures, religions, ways of living and so on--was my first exposure to the 'real world', and an enormously educative experience. But this was for less than a month each year, and then it was back to school, where, carefully insulated from the 'real world', I spent the rest of the year studying about almost nothing at all that inspired or intrigued me.
I know I ought to be grateful for those annual learning trips, but they were nothing remotely like what a girl I heard of the other day is priveleged to enjoy: She's not yet ten, but her parents have sensibly withdrawn her from school for a while and are taking her on a two-year journey around the world. They are really roughing it out, going for treks in the mountains, trips deep into deserts and jungles and across seas, and spending time with NGOs working with people with disabilities. What an amazing learning experience for that lucky little child!
Back in the 1980s, I was in college in Delhi, where I majored in Economics, a subject I had no interest in whatsoever. The subject was taught in such a way that it seemed to have no bearing at all on the harsh realities of the 'real world'. Poverty, for instance, was just a bundle of figures and graphs. We learned about industries and agricultural yields, but were never taken to see a factory or a field out in the 'real world'. And so on. And so, when I heard of an organisation that sponsored college students to spend their holidays in an NGO of their choice working out in the 'field' I enthusiastically signed up, and was sent to spend a month in a little village in tribal-dominated Koraput, in Orissa.
This was a quarter century ago, and Koraput, which is still said to be among the most 'backward' districts in India, was then thought to be really 'back of beyond'. The village I was to live in was set in a narrow valley and surrounded by thickly-forested hills. Most of its inhabitants belonged to the Kondh tribe, most of who were then (and, I suppose, even now are) miserably poor. The Kondhs still followed much of their simple, traditional way of life.
Being city-bred and never having lived in a village before, I didn't manage to survive too long in the village. In fact--you won't believe me--I fled the very next day after I got there! It was just too much for me to have to put on a lungi for the first time in my life and bathe at the village well with about half of the village folk gawking at me wonderstruck, to sleep on the floor and to eat very simple food. And when I saw a snake slithering about as I stepped out of the hut where I had spent the night, I rushed inside, hurriedly packed my bags and took the next train to Calcutta, where my parents then lived!
Of course, I didn't learn much at all about the 'real world' of the Kondhs on that trip, and I did feel awful about having failed to spend even one full day in the village where I had dreamt of spending an entire month. I was just too weak or too used to urban comforts, I then thought, to endure a rough learning experience about Indian village reality. But it didn't take me long to change my mind.
Three years later, I finished my degree, and then, once again, I felt a powerful urge to travel about and explore and educate myself about the 'real world'. And so, I spent the next two years in different parts of rural India--a fortnight in Bamini, a remote hamlet inhabited by Bhil tribals, in northern Maharashtra, three months teaching at a school in Bakulia, a tribal village in eastern Uttar Pradesh, and a couple of months each with NGOs in Rajasthan and Bihar, interspersed with short visits home.
Those two years of wandering about in among the most poverty-stricken parts of India were an amazing educational experience for me. I had only studied in books about poverty, caste-discrimination, untouchability and gender oppression, or about forests and rice fields, village markets and tribal music, till then, but for the first time I witnessed all these for myself as living realities. Having been an incorrigible introvert as child, my experiences in those years also worked an amazing transformation in me as a person. They made me more confident in understanding and relating to people of different cultures and backgrounds and in being able to adjust less stressfully to difficult situations. I could, if I were to go to Koraput again, very well be able to stay on! Honestly, those two years were the best educative experience I've ever had, educating me about the 'real world' and about myself in a way that no amount of classroom teaching ever could have.
I fancied I might spend the rest of my life tramping about in this way, but the middle-class anxiety about 'security' and a 'regular job' got the better of me, and so I enrolled in a university to do an MA, and then an M.Phil.--a total of four years--in Sociology. Honestly, had I spent those four years in the 'real world' instead, living and working with people as I had done two years earlier, I would have learned much more than I actually did. I can't seem to remember much of what I studied at the university--which was heralded as the 'best' in the country--and I don't regret that one bit. But, and this was a major blessing, the university had an amazing extra-curricular life. Almost every day--after classhours--there'd be a talk by some 'noted' person or the other--a politician or an activist or a film-maker, or a demonstration against this or that. It was this, rather than what I was compelled to study at class and then promptly forgot after the examinations, that I learned a great deal from.
After finishing my M.Phil., I went abroad on a fellowship to do a Ph.D., which was then followed by a long stint as a post-doctoral fellow at two institutions in Europe. Now, I have to confess that it was the money more than anything else that drew me to spend all those years abroad. It wasn't, I soon discovered, that the standards of higher education there were better there than in the university I had studied at in India. And so, I can't say that I learned much from these institutions which I wouldn't have been able to had I stayed on in India instead. It was outside those institutuions, rather than within them, that my learning actually took place. The generous fellowships that I was fortunate to receive enabled me to travel to many countries--in Africa, Europe and Asia--and it was in the midst of the 'real world' which these travels took me to that I truly learned--about different cultures and about how different people struggled to make sense of life.
And so, given that whatever education I've received that I consider valuable and useful, has been from outside, rather than within, the classroom, when Raju asked me the other day what he should do with his children's education, I wasn't really wrong, was I, when I felt the irresistable urge to tell him to pull his children out of school at once?
Yoginder Sikand is bangalore based writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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